This Sermon for the Second Sunday after Trinity, written by The Rev. Dr. Robert Crouse, was first preached at St. James’ Church, Halifax, Canada, 15 June 1980.
“This is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ
and love one another, as he gave us commandment.”
1 St John 3
The message of the Church’s liturgical year is a very simple lesson, and a very direct one; “Believe in Jesus Christ and love one another,” yet it seems to take us at least a life-time to learn it. The essence of the message is summed up by St John in the Epistle lessons for the first two Sundays after Trinity: “In this was manifested the love of God towards us”, he says, “because that God sent his only-begotten Son into the world that we might live through him. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he first loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”
That is the first point of all our celebrations: that we should catch a glimpse of the manifest love of God, and be refreshed and elevated – “reborn” – by that vision. “No one has seen God at any time”: for the natural man, God is the great unknown, the power beyond, the mysterious principle of all existence. To know God in that way, as the infinite power governing the cosmos, is surely a noble knowledge, and also a tragic knowledge. [The Greeks came to this knowledge through philosophical speculation, but Aristotle concluded that the life of the gods is too high for man.] But to know God as love is something far different. To know that the eternal principle moving and governing all things is the divine love manifest, is a transforming knowledge, a knowledge which changes us. To know that God is love is to see everything with new eyes, a “new heaven and a new earth”; it is to be spiritually “re-born”, to be saved from fear and hopelessness.
In Jesus Christ, the love of God is manifest: “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son.” That is the starting-point of our salvation, that we should believe that revelation of God’s love; or, as St John puts it, “that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ.”
That belief, that recognition, of God’s love is the starting-point: “Hereby we know love, because he laid down his life for us.” We know love; and it is our destiny and vocation to be transformed by that love, to realise it and fulfill it in our lives. And there is St John’s second point: our recognition of God’s love is to be expressed in our lives with one another. Thus we are commanded to believe in Jesus Christ and to love one another.
And it is important to see that this transformation of ourselves in realising and expressing God’s love is not something which just spontaneously happens. God’s love is the seed of new life, sown in our souls, and it must be cherished, and nurtured and cultivated. Sometimes, alas, we give it only the barren and rocky soil of neglect; sometimes we choke it with thorns and thistles of worldly preoccupations, and the new life of the spirit withers and decays within us. That is the point of the Parable of the Great Supper, in today’s Gospel: God’s love is like an invitation; he bids us “come, for all things are now ready; and they all with one consent began to make excuse.” Good excuses, no doubt, at least in worldly terms, and we could probably add to the list almost indefinitely. But with this invitation, no excuses will do. It is the Son of God who comes to call us to the heavenly banquet of God’s friendship. Surely refusal is unthinkable; yet how often we manage to do it!
During this long season of Trinity, the concern of the Church’s teaching is our response to that invitation: “Come, for all things are now ready.” We are concerned with the nurture and cultivation of our new life, individually and institutionally. St John, in today’s Epistle, speaks of the signs of that life in us: “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren.” The love of God in us is manifest in our love for one another – our active goodwill and benevolence: not just in feeling, or superficial emotion, not just “in word, neither in tongue, but in deed and in truth.” “Hereby we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit which he has given us.” Thus, our recognition of God’s love has its necessary expression in our love of one another; and without that expression, we know that the recognition is counterfeit. [We are only deceiving ourselves – as in the rich man in last Sunday’s Gospel.]
Thus, we are commanded to believe the revelation of God’s love in Jesus Christ, and commanded to express that love for one another. Perhaps it is one of the most surprising aspects of all this that St John keeps speaking in terms of commandments: we are commanded to believe in Jesus Christ, and commanded to love one another. To many of us, perhaps that seems a very strange way of putting it. After all, people either believe, or they don’t; they either love one another or they don’t. How can such things be commanded? The commandment to love seems especially strange: we’re used to thinking of love as something spontaneous, something that just happens. It is an experience. One “falls in love”. What sense does it make to command it?
But St John’s approach is more realistic than our conventional modern attitudes about the spontaneity of belief and love. Our beliefs and loves do not simply “happen”; they pertain to a character long formed by a long process of training and habituation.
[In the coming seven weeks, starting next Sunday, we will look in a very practical way at seven spiritual disciplines in the Bible & how they relate to our growth in virtue and the putting off of vice – it has to do with the forming of our Christian character – a preparing of our hearts for the greater inflow of God’s grace – a basic training if we would see and enter more fully in His Kingdom.]
And that process [of the shaping of our beliefs and our loves] always begins with commandment and obedience. [“Follow me!”, says Jesus, “Believe in me!”, says Jesus. “Love me!”, says Jesus. “If you love me you will keep my commandments”, says Jesus, “And the Father and I will come to you, and dwell with you.”]
Just as our natural life has its formation in obedience to parents and teachers, so our spiritual life has its formation in obedience to God’s word. There is, of course, a spiritual maturity, when our beliefs and our loves are spontaneously right. That is the condition we call “sanctity”. But that is the end, not the beginning; our beginning is obedience and commandment, and the commandment is twofold: “That we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, as he gave us commandment.”
[This morning the Table is set, all things are ready, and you have heeded the invitation. Let us prepare ourselves now to partake of the feast!]